As government investigators around the world try to unravel what may be one - or more - of the biggest international stock swindles in history, the names of Utahns and Utah-originated companies are popping up all over.
News stories about how the Utah-originated stocks were sold to investors around the world have appeared in newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to London.Already authorities say the number of victimized investors has passed 10,000; the amount of money extracted from them exceeds $500 million. And investigators continue to discover new companies, new players.
At this point, government officials believe the basic role of at least some Utahns was to produce corporations whose stock was eventually sold to the public at inflated prices.
Two apparently separate Utah groups had a hand in providing corporations. One group dealt in what's known as revived shell companies. Existing corporations with few or no assets, which had been involuntarily dissolved by the state, were acquired and reinstated. The Securities and Exchange Commission alleges that many of these companies were fraudulently revived.
The Internal Revenue Service says the other group, linked to Utahn Michael Wright, manufactured blind pool corporations. A blind pool is a corporation that makes its initial public stock offering with little or no stated business purpose except to find profitable ventures in which to invest its shareholders' money.
It's not clear whether the revived shell group's choice of that particular vehicle was a response to Utah's 1986 adoption of tough new rules on blind pool formation.
But the rule change - part of an effort to clean up Utah's grimy reputation as a national stock fraud capital - dramatically reduced the number of blind pools being formed in the state.
Although manufactured in different ways and subject to different regulations, both the blind pool and the revived shell are easily manipulable forms of corporations. They're not illegal per se but are often used as tools for stock chicanery, said John C. Baldwin, director of the Utah Securities Division and president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.
Many private companies go public by merging with blind pools or revived shells to avoid the expense and regulatory paper work of doing their own underwriting.
In Utah, the blind pools and revived shells were produced by two apparently unrelated groups. Similarly, two apparently unrelated brokerage groups in Europe sold the stocks. One, Continental American Investments N.V., sold only the former revived shell companies, while the other brokerage group, linked to former New York stockbroker and disbarred lawyer Thomas F. Quinn, sold both blind pools and former revived shells.
Producing corporations, manipulating their stock price and selling the shares around the world required the involvement of many individuals. And tracing what happened has become a task for law enforcement agencies and securities regulators in several countries. The European boiler rooms that sold the stocks almost never sold to investors in the same countries where they operated. Each government agency involved is working on its respective piece of the investigative puzzle, but they also exchange much information.
For investigators, simply determining what happened is hard enough. Sorting out the main players from the innocent, or less culpable, pawns and then proving that crimes were committed is even tougher, because often the specific actions involved can be legal or illegal, depending on the intent behind them.
Because of the many complications involved, this story of how some of the Utah corporate creations made it from Salt Lake City to unsuspecting investors as far away as South Africa and Australia is an amazing, tangled tale that international authorities are still struggling to piece together.